Monday, March 16, 2015

Increasing Bad Press for Today's Healthcare Information Technology - Deserved and Overdue

Here are three candid, quite revealing articles about the distaste for today's health IT that appeared recently.  I will address each,

The first seems like pure deja vu (see my June 4, 2009 post "If The Military Can't Get Electronic Health Records Right, Why Would We Think Conflicted EHR Companies And IT-Backwater Hospitals Can?" at

1.  Forbes:  Pentagon's $11 Billion Healthcare Record System Will Be Obsolete Before It's Even Built -  March 3, 2015

... No doubt about it, the project managers understand how to speak the language of acquisition reform.  However, a close look at what their site proposes to do for the 9.6 million active-duty warfighters and dependents in the military healthcare system reveals that this effort is going to fail.  It will probably be better than what it replaces, but it will lag far, far behind the kind of performance that users of internet-based technologies have come to expect.  So soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines — and their dependents — aren’t going to get the quality of care they deserve, and some will suffer mightily as a result.

In order to understand why the modernization initiative is doomed to failure, you need only grasp the significance of two key phrases the program office uses in its approach to industry for proposals.  First, it says it is seeking a “state-of-the-market” electronic health record system.  Second, it says whatever it selects will be an “off-the-shelf” product.  In other words, it is seeking to acquire an electronic health record system that already exists in an industry noted for its antiquated approach to the movement of information.  Furthermore, despite the program office’s insistence that it will avoid getting locked into reliance on a single monopolistic vendor, the project manager told Politico he envisions the contract as “an extensive prenup and no divorce.”

In other words, what I have described for years as a "business computing" oriented approach to clinical computing - an approach as guaranteed to fail as confusing psychiatry with neurosurgery because they both treat brain disorders, and trying to treat a brain tumor with psychotherapy or a personality disorder with a scalpel.  Specifics matter.

Sounds like vendor lock to me.  The business model the program is pursuing resembles a proprietary enterprise software system of the sort that many major hospitals have installed.

If you don’t know what an enterprise software system is, the first sentence in Wikipedia’s entry on the subject gets to the point: “Enterprise software…is purpose-designed computer software used to satisfy the needs of an organization rather than individual users.”  Got that — rather than individual users?  This approach to information system design is a throwback to the pre-internet days of mainframe computers.  In fact, the dominant version currently in use by private healthcare providers relies on upgrades to software developed nearly half a century ago at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

It's not a throwback to the mainframe era.  It represents the now-obsolete but still dominant, defective control-mentality acculturation and over-empowerment of information technologists (e.g.,  This acculturation is a remnant not of mainframe days but of the card tabulator data processing era (

2.  Health Affairs:  Where Is HITECH’s $35 Billion Dollar Investment Going? - March 4, 2015

by Sen. John Thune, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Pat Roberts, Sen. Richard Burr, and Sen. Mike Enzi
On April 16, 2013, we released “REBOOT: Re-examining the Strategies Needed to Successfully Adopt Health IT,” outlining concerns with implementation of the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. Specifically, we asked: What have the American people gotten for their $35 billion dollar investment?

Two years after releasing the white paper, and six years since enactment of the HITECH Act, the question remains. There is inconclusive evidence that the program has achieved its goals of increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and improving the quality of care.

I note that the statement "there is inconclusive evidence that the program has achieved its goals of increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and improving the quality of care" is a euphemistic way of saying "there is conclusive evidence that the program has not achieved its goals of increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and improving the quality of car."

We have been candid about the key reason for the lackluster performance of this stimulus program: the lack of progress toward interoperability. Countless electronic health record vendors, hospital leaders, physicians, researchers, and thought leaders have told us time and again that interoperability is necessary to achieve the promise of a more efficient health system for patients, providers, and taxpayers.

Instead, according to physician surveys, electronic health records (EHRs) are a leading cause of anxiety for physicians across the country. The EHR products are not meaningful to physicians, which is clear when you consider that half of all physicians will have their Medicare payments cut in 2015 for not adopting government benchmarks for EHRs. ... After spending $28 billion so far of the $35 billion total taxpayer investment, significant progress toward interoperability has been elusive.

Sadly, our elected officials still don't quite understand that the largest drawback to today's health IT is not lack of interoperability, but lack of basic operability (usability). 

However, $7 billion of the HITECH $35 billion is still available to waste in order to learn that lesson.

... In listening to the concerns from EHR vendors and EHR users from across the care continuum, ONC has taken an important turn under the leadership of Dr. Karen DeSalvo. The previous ONC leadership did not understand the difficulty and enormity of creating government-approved products in a market that struggled to exist before government incentives arrived.

As a result, our nation’s health care providers are stuck with the huge cost of unwieldy systems trying to conform to government mandates. They are stuck adopting EHR systems which don’t fit into their established workflows. And if they actually want to share their patients’ data, they are stuck with even more costs imposed by vendors.

At the center of all this is the patient who must sit quietly in the exam room looking at her physician use a computer instead of directly talking with her, who likely has seen no better access to her own data, and who is struggling to understand why her doctor has such a difficult time getting her lab results.

This is not exactly an endorsement of ONC's prior leaders.  Perhaps the aforementioned "previous ONC leadership" should have read this blog more carefully.  Or the Wall Street Joutnal where I spelled these outcomes out in 2009.  Emphases mine:

Feb. 18, 2009

Dear WSJ:

You observe that the true political goal is socialized medicine facilitated by health care information technology. You note that the public is being deceived, as the rules behind this takeover were stealthily inserted in the stimulus bill.

I have a different view on who is deceiving whom. In fact, it is the government that has been deceived by the HIT industry and its pundits. Stated directly, the administration is deluded about the true difficulty of making large-scale health IT work. The beneficiaries will largely be the IT industry and IT management consultants.

For £12.7 billion the U.K., which already has socialized medicine, still does not have a working national HIT system, but instead has a major IT quagmire, some of it caused by U.S. HIT vendors.

HIT (with a few exceptions) is largely a disaster. I'm far more concerned about a mega-expensive IT misadventure than an IT-empowered takeover of medicine.

The stimulus bill, to its credit, recognizes the need for research on improving HIT. However this is a tool to facilitate clinical care, not a cybernetic miracle to revolutionize medicine. The government has bought the IT magic bullet exuberance hook, line and sinker.

I can only hope patients get something worthwhile for the $20 billion.

Scot Silverstein, M.D.
Faculty, Biomedical Informatics
Drexel University Institute for Healthcare Informatics

These were easy predictions to make based on experience and papers such as this.


3., Has the AMA lost its mojo?  - March 9. 2015

As the mainstream media has begun to realize that organized physicians groups are doing all they can to resist adopting EHRs, the coverage of the dispute has revealed just how little impact their efforts—​led by the AMA—​are achieving in accomplishing their goals.

The AMA has come out vehemently against the Meaningful Use program and the high velocity with which the HHS and Congress want doctors to adopt EHRs, and they have written countless letters, position papers and blueprints for reform to announce their displeasure. Moreover, more than 30 other physicians groups have signed on to their copious letters. A recent USA Today piece quoted the incoming chief of the AMA about EHRs.

"Physicians passionately despise their electronic health records," says Lexington, KY, emergency physician Steven Stack, the American Medical Association's president-elect. "We use technology quickly when it works … Electronic health records don't work right now."

A 2013 AMA/RAND study revealed that EHRs are at the root of the modern doctor’s dissatisfaction with his job.

I note that up until relatively recently, the AMA was largely a defender of today's EHR technology.  They certainly got what they wished for...

"Physicians believe in the benefits of electronic health records, and most do not want to go back to paper charts," said Dr. Mark Friedberg, the study's lead author and a natural scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "But at the same time, they report that electronic systems are deeply problematic in several ways. Physicians are frustrated by systems that force them to do clerical work or distract them from paying close attention to their patients."

In fact, I believe this oft-made statement about "most do not want to go back to paper charts" is incomplete and misleading.  In terms of retrieving data such as labs and images, most probably would not want to go back to paper.  On the other hand, most probably would like to be able to document and enter orders on paper and have clerical personnel transcribe that information into computers - instead of the physicians being the clerical persons themselves, and gratis.

... According to a piece on Wall Street Cheat Sheet, there could be a couple of reasons why the AMA seems to keep getting shut out—​namely the AHA and the Blues.

While the AMA had $19 million to lobby Congress, the American Hospital Association—​which represents providers who took a financial hit after the last ICD-10 adoption delay—​spent $20.75 million last year to lobby lawmakers. Big insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which would also benefit from wide adoption of EHRs and ICD-10, spent $21.3 million in 2014. That's a combined $42 million, more than double the AMA's effort.

Now, factor into that the extreme amount of influence wielded by the tech sector—​Google alone spent $17.5 million in lobbying Congress in 2014—​and the scent in the wind becomes easy to identify. The tech sector stands to make billions from EHR creation and management. Insurers need ICD-10 and EHRs to bring better cost management into their industry, enabling them to spend less as they pay for more care for more patients. Finally, hospitals need the tech because the ACA is bringing millions of new patients into their doors, and the old pegboard and paper systems that doctors are trying to cling to just won't work for hospitals that see tens of thousands of patients each month.

The AMA has set up a showdown on ICD-10 and EHRs that it will lose, and lose big, because it just plain does not carry the muscle it used to.

In other words, medicine has been invaded by the Information Technology industry and the profiteers who stand to benefit from that technology, with the bulk of the work being performed by clinicians, for free and to patient detriment.

This seems a clear formula for clinicians to simply refuse to use health IT altogether for data entry and demand a return to paper data recording with clerical transcription, but alas, it's likely too late for a revolt like that.

As health IT continues to get well-deserved and long-overdue bad press like this, one wonders if our culture will start to recover from the state of health IT delirium it is in.

I am in doubt.

(See my Jan. 20, 2011 post "Healthcare IT delirium" at for more on that issue).

-- SS

3/16/15 Addendum:

A physician actually proposes physicians be paid for clerical work:

Pay doctors and nurses for the time they spend charting

-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good question. Will we ever recover from the dangers of EHR? The fact that this question is brought up says NO.

Healthcare should always move forward, carefully. However, in the last 10 yrs, it has all been a "set of economic transactions" - (Brownlee - March 9th post) I feel sorry for the patients. oops, I mean "consumers".